19 Jul Introducing Morphology – A Subject Every Teacher Should Understand!
I’m so excited to finally get around to writing about morphology! I believe that all teachers of all subjects should have an extensive, explicit understanding of morphology. It’s essential for teaching the subject-specific vocabulary we need students to know and recent research has shown it has great value in teaching students Reading and Spelling skills. Learning about morphology completely changed my teaching! I hope you enjoy this introduction to morphology and that’s it’s full of ‘ah ha’ moments for you, too.
We often think of words as being the smallest units of meaning but actually, morphemes are. Morphemes are simply prefixes, bases (or roots) and suffixes. Morphology (in linguistics) is the study of small units of meaning within English words or morphemes. For example, in the word ‘rebuilding’ there are three morphemes, the prefix ‘re-‘, the base ‘build’ and the suffix ‘-ing’.
Morphemes signal many parts of a word’s meaning and use, such as the core meaning of the word, how it’s used within a sentence and tense (to name a few). The prefix re- means ‘to do over again’, so this gives us a within-word clue that ‘rebuilding’ means reconstructing something that has been damaged in some way. This word has a subtle difference in meaning to its relative ‘building’. English is “morphophonemic” (Wolf, 2008), not phonetic as is commonly thought. This means that English spelling is not a simple translation of speech sounds represented by letters.
Morphology and etymology (word history and origins) also play an important part in informing how we spell. In the word ‘action’, there is two morphemes act + ion = action. When we add prefixes and suffixes to bases the pronunciation often shifts but the structure (or spelling) doesn’t as the meaning in both words is related to the base ‘act’. This is why so many people think English spelling is ‘crazy, random, weird, confusing’ etc! There are many examples of words where the base (or core kernel of meaning) is preserved, but when we add prefixes or suffixes, the pronunciation shifts:
- I take medicine to heal I try to stay in good health.
- I know you don’t like learning, but it’s important to have knowledge.
- There is no finite The number of answers is infinite.
- I can use my ruler. My pencil is also useful.
Why is morphology important?
Explicitly teaching morphology can develop students’ Reading, Spelling, vocabulary and comprehension skills across the curriculum. Studying morphemic parts can help students who are ‘stuck’ in the phonics stage meaning they over-rely on ‘sounding out’ each letter or letter team. This a demanding task for working memory when reading longer words and, if we go back to the example ‘action’, is not a very helpful strategy for words where attaching new morphemes results in a shift in pronunciation.
Studying suffixes helps students to more accurately recognise word endings, which can be difficult for some. Building up instant recognition of a range morphemes can help students to read a wider range of multisyllabic words with less effort and can help students to segment words into smaller chunks to decode them and infer their meanings.
This can be extremely helpful in exams. If a child comes across an unfamiliar word in an exam question he or she may be able to infer its meaning more readily if they can segment the word into individual morphemes. For example, in a question such as “Why is healthy eating beneficial?” the student may not know the word ‘beneficial’ but if they are aware that ‘bene’ means ‘good’ they may be able to work out what the question is asking.
This type of knowledge is particularly helpful in Maths and Science where there is very little sentence context from which to infer meaning and a lot of high level, subject-specific vocabulary to remember. For example, in a direction such as ‘Circle all the quadrilaterals.” the student may not be able to read or know the word ‘quadrilateral’, but they may have been explicitly taught that ‘quadr’ is a base that signals something to do with the number four. From that, they may be able to successfully respond. Explicit teaching of morphemes can assist students to:
|Segment words into smaller meaning chunks when reading||Segment words into smaller meaning chunks when spelling
|Look for within-word meaning clues in new and unfamiliar vocabulary||Look for within-word meaning clues in new and unfamiliar vocabulary|
|Read accurately all the way to the end of the word||Spell phonically irregular words||Enjoy greater exam success||Enjoy greater exam success|
|Find meaning chunks within words to better predict word meanings||Spell multisyllabic words||Access higher level, subject specific texts by improving their decoding skills||Access higher level, subject specific texts by improving their decoding skills|
|Read in larger chunks, reducing working memory load when decoding||Apply highly consistent spelling rules||Improve comprehension of higher level texts by helping them to understand relationships between known and unfamiliar words||Improve comprehension of higher level texts by helping them to understand relationships between known and unfamiliar words|
|Provides more accurate ways of decoding multisyllabic words beyond ‘sound it out’ which is a poor strategy for most multisyllabic words||Know when to double letters||Store words securely in long term memory through association to known words and related words||Store words securely in long term memory through association to known words and related words|
Once you develop a solid awareness of morphology, you will never look at words the same way again! Did you know that before much was known about malaria people thought it was caused by ‘bad air’ around lakes and ponds? They were yet to learn it was the mosquitos that frequent these places that were to blame for the spread of the disease, and so they named it mal + air + ia,meaning literally ‘bad air’.
Kids LOVE investigating word meanings and history through morphology and etymology, and doing so improves their linguistic problem-solving skills, ability to infer meanings from context and the comprehension skills they need to understand written texts.
The discussion that takes places within the class is also extremely beneficial because it helps students learn new vocabulary. It provides rich, meaningful and contextually situated experiences of the word. Introducing morphology can seem a little intimidating at first, but once you get started you will never look at words in the same way. I urge you to learn more, it will rejuvenate your teaching and add another powerful tool to your teaching toolbox.
Warning – it becomes addictive!!
Resource Recommendations for teachers
There are a number of resources that helped me as a teacher. All of my resource recommendations for teachers can be found here. In addition, these three books – Rescuing Spelling, Proust and the Squid and Unlocking Literacy would be highly beneficial to any teacher trying to gain a deeper understanding of morphology. Click the image to purchase the book.